Higgins, Dorsey Families Lived Side By Side On Cedar Street; The Eureka Straightening Comb Was Produced At A Building In The Rear

Tuesday, June 28, 2022 - by John Wilson

The Higgins and Dorsey families were longtime residents of Cedar Street on the Westside, living side by side at 917 and 919 Cedar. The connection was that Lenora Higgins was the wife of William Oscar Park Dorsey Sr.

Her father, John Goldsmith "Capt. Jack" Higgins, was the inventor of the Eureka Straightening Comb, and it was produced in a building at the rear of the Higgins home.

Her mother, Jennie Higgins, was quite accomplished herself. She operated a popular beauty shop in Chattanooga and later got into real estate. She wound up owning much of the property surrounding her, including erecting two apartment buildings and acquiring others. 

Josephine Dorsey Wheeler, granddaughter of John G. Higgins, produced a book on the amazing comb that became popular with women across the country and overseas. She also provided interesting details about the two families.

John G. and Jennie Higgins were at 19 Early St. by 1910. Early Street was a continuation of Cedar Street past Ninth Street and later the entire street took the Cedar Street name.

Jarrett Elston and Willie Finch were early residents at 17 Early, but the Dorseys soon moved in and lived there for several decades. The attractive two-story frame house featured a large front porch with an A-shaped roof and a small room over it.

John G. Higgins was described as a precocious youth who announced to his teachers in Athens, Ala., that he was going to do great things one day. He was born at Athens in 1856 and raised there. He spent much of his time as a youth tinkering with watches and other gadgets. He also enjoyed "talking with people with active minds" instead of wasting time on "trifles."

After he migrated to the much-larger town of Joliet, Ill., he met "a charming and beautiful girl." She was Domicilia Jean Bonjourant, who was from Chillicotite, Ohio. She was part French and she learned the French method of beauty culture. She had worked in shops in Chicago and elsewhere. The marriage of John Higgins and Ms. Bonjourant occurred in 1881. He quickly decided that her name needed to be shortened to Jennie.

They lived at Braceville, Ill., where he started a successful barber shop. Then they tried Rosedale, Kan. where their daughter was born. Dissatisfied there, they set out for Chattanooga, Tn., remembering its beautiful scenery from a prior visit there as a child.

He then acquired the home on Early Street and opened a watch repair shop. He later switched to the barber business with a proven formula of getting one shop up and running, selling it, then starting another. Jennie Higgins opened the Star Hair Dressing Bazaar. The name was later shortened to Higgins Beauty Shop. A publication in 1903 said, "Mrs. Jennie Higgins is the only manufacturer of human hair goods located in Chattanooga. She is the proprietor of the only hair dressing establishment for ladies." She soon moved to larger quarters on East Eighth Street between Market and Cherry streets.   

John Higgins was known around town as a natty dresser and a confident and sophisticated man. He earned the sobriquet of "Capt. Jack." Despite his business success, he still wanted to produce the "great thing" that he had promised his early teachers. After hearing a chance remark on a downtown street, he decided to invent a comb that could straighten kinky hair into straight fluffy hair. He experimented with many different metals and finally concluded that brass and copper worked best. He got a trademark for the comb on May 21, 1907, four months after producing the first model.

Orders quickly began coming in and production was ramped up at the building to the rear of their home. He still was full of ideas and also patented a combination rat and roach trap.

Due to the outbreak of the first world war, John Higgins could no longer get the brass and copper he needed for his comb. He also fretted about the new federal income tax, believing it would further take away from the family finances. Due to these concerns, he took his own life at his home in March 1919. He was 71.

With her beauty shop still doing well, Jennie Higgins began to delve into real estate. She first purchased a two-story frame house with a large magnolia tree in the front yard that was next door. She then bought two vacant lots next to that and erected two brick apartment buildings with four apartments each. One at 909 Cedar she called the Maybelle. Mrs. Wheeler related in her book that the apartments rented immediately. She next bought three brick attached buildings on the same side of the block on the other end. She then owned all the property on her side of that block of the street. Jennie Higgins died in 1929 at age 63.

Lenora Higgins majored in music at Fisk Normal School at Nashville. Then she enrolled in the Burnham Beauty School of Chicago. Afterward, she began helping her mother in the Chattanooga salon. 

Lenora in 1915 married W.O.P. Dorsey, who was born at Jackson, Ga., and raised at Gadsden, Ala. His father was a full blood Cherokee Indian. W.O.P. Dorsey had a successful barber shop at Gadsden prior to moving to Chattanooga. Soon after arriving, he set up a shop at the Terminal Station. and they moved into the house next to the Higgins couple. Mrs. Wheeler said after a short time Lenora's new husband showed her a newly built frame house in a field outside of town. But she immediately let him know she was "not a country girl." They remained on the Westside.

After the death of his father-in-law, W.O.P. Dorsey took over operation of the comb factory. It remained in operation at the same location until 1950 when it was closed. By then it was facing competition from electric models.

The Higgins and Dorsey families were active members of the First Congregational Church that was at Ninth and Lindsay streets. The church was said to be the first in the South to invite whites and blacks to worship together.

Josephine Dorsey Wheeler was the eldest of four children born to W.O.P. Dorsey Sr. and Lenora. She remained in Chattanooga for a number of years teaching English at Howard High School and the Second District School. She stayed in Chattanooga until her marriage to George Wheeler when they moved to New York City.

Josephine was the valedictorian of her high school class. She received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English from Fisk University and Master of Arts Degrees in Education and Guidance from Columbia University Teachers College. She taught in the New York City Public School System until retiring in 1982. She continued to teach at St. John’s University and at St. Joseph’s Private Day School.

Her sister, Evelyn, was a graduate of Howard. She furthered her education with bachelors from Fisk University and the University of Illinois, and Masters in Library Science from the University of Michigan in 1946. She was described as "a person of unwavering strength, not afraid to stand up as an active advocate during the Mississippi civil rights movement, working on voter registration, women's rights, literacy and equality issues. She was an active member of the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, National Democratic Party, and the League of Women Voters; she also assisted the Freedom Riders in Meridian." She married Dr. Octavius Douglas Polk and they lived at Meridian, Miss. She worked on the Eureka Comb book with her sister. The book may still be ordered through Amazon.

Another sister was Doris Dorsey.

Their brother, W.O.P. "Bill" Dorsey Jr., was director of information at the Chattanooga Public Schools, then was in the same position at UTC. He married the former Tardiefay Arvant Davis, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. W.B. Davis. Dr. Davis was a Chattanooga dentist. 

W.O.P. Dorsey died in 1956 at the residence on Cedar Street. When Lenora died 10 years later, she was living on Fortwood Street. By then, the Higgins and Dorsey homes along with Jennie Higgins' brick apartment buildings had disappeared along with Cedar Street.

Dr. Anita Polk-Conley, a great-granddaughter of the inventor of the Eureka comb, is a leader in the MLK District of Chattanooga and a professor at Chattanooga State Community College. She was born and raised at Meridian, Miss., but returned to the family roots in Chattanooga.

 

 

 

 

 


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